Nobel prize: 5 scientists leading the way in Ireland

14 Oct 2016

Nobel prize medal. Image: superjoseph/Shutterstock

The 2016 Nobel prizes have shone a light on niche areas of scientific discovery. But who in Ireland is working in these recently famous fields? found out.

This year’s Nobel prizes for chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine saw the scientific fields of molecular machines, topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter, and autophagy recognised respectively.

Adding a layer of celebrity to disciplines often overlooked by the masses, looked at what work is underway in Ireland in these fields.

Nobel prize

Nobel prize: Chemistry

This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry have melded the worlds of engineering and chemistry for their fantastic molecular machines.

Described by the Nobel Prize Committee as having “taken chemistry to a new dimension”,  the work of Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L Feringa has led to molecules whose movements can be controlled remotely, simply by adding energy at particular moments.

Prof Thorri Gunnlaugsson

One researcher in Ireland who is leading much of the research that these three men achieved is Prof Thorri Gunnlaugsson of the School of Chemistry in Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

Having recently led one team of chemists to create a new 3D bone-scanning technique, one of Gunnlaugsson’s ongoing efforts in the field of supramolecular chemistry is to create interlocking molecules.

In describing what this looks like to, Gunnlaugsson compares it to making loops with your thumb and your index finger and continuing to do this along the hand on each finger.

When you do all of this at the same time you are left with a single working unit, and it is the attempt to link all of these individual chains together that Gunnlaugsson and his team are trying to achieve.

“We are using [our understanding of molecular machines] to generate molecular logic gates which [are] the logic gates used in computing, but on a nanoscale,” Gunnlaugsson explained.

“The challenge is to be able to line these up in such a manner that you don’t just get one to operate, but cascade the entire operation.”

Speaking of Stoddart’s contribution, Gunnlaugsson said: “Stoddart managed to make a system on molecule machines where you had more memory than you would be able to put into a silicon chip.

“This is really the future of what the big companies are looking at, like IBM: Can we do computing with chemicals in the future?”

Nobel prize: Interacting molecules

Interacting molecules illustration. Image: phive/Shutterstock

Dr Robert Elmes

Maynooth University’s Dr Robert Elmes was first attracted to chemistry in secondary school, where his teacher inspired him to study medicinal chemistry at TCD.

In 2007, he was awarded the Embark scholarship from the Irish Research Council to undertake his PhD at TCD, under the supervision of Gunnlaugsson. His research consisted of “design, synthesis and evaluation of new metal complexes and nanomaterials as DNA probes and photoreagents.”

Elmes began working at Maynooth University in 2014, where he is currently a lecturer in organic chemistry at the Department of Chemistry.

He is interested in the fields of supramolecular chemistry and chemical biology, where his research group is aiming to develop areas in both health science and nanoscience. At present, Elmes is involved in the research of designing biomimetic materials as drug delivery vehicles, therapeutics and environmental sensors.

He explains that supramolecular chemistry is all about how molecules interact with each other; how they can recognise one another, assemble into larger structures and function on a molecular scale.

This ties in with Stoddart’s Nobel prize-winning development of the rotaxane: a machine which threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle.

Describing the win as an “amazing achievement”, Elmes said that Stoddart was “a giant of supramolecular chemistry”.

Elmes first met the Nobel laureate at TCD, where the latter was being awarded an honorary doctorate. “I have met him many times since at conferences and his enthusiasm is unwavering,” Elmes added.

“As a supramolecular chemist, this Nobel prize reaffirms the importance of the field to society at large. It is a wonderful example of how fundamental chemical research can be used in so many diverse applications; many of which haven’t even been considered yet.”

Nobel prize: Physiology or medicine

The 2016 Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine is Yoshinori Ohsumi, for his work on autophagy, discovering the mechanism behind the process.

Autophagy is the process of ‘self-eating’ that cells go through, destroying their own contents and recycling certain components.

First discussed in the 1960s, it wasn’t until Yoshinori Ohsumi used baker’s yeast as a tool in the 1990s that genes essential to the process were finally discovered.

Referring to his work as part of a “series of brilliant experiments”, the Nobel Foundation said Ohsumi subsequently showed that sophisticated machinery is used in humans cells to achieve autophagy.

Dr Seamus Hussey

One doctor working in this field is Dr Seamus Hussey, a consultant gastroenterologist at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, and lecturer in UCD.

Looking after children with a group of issues surrounding inflammatory bowel disease, a spike in Crohn’s disease in Ireland has been part of his focus.

Saying he’s witnessed a threefold rise in Crohn’s diagnosis since around 2000, Hussey has seen the number of sufferers per year rise from 35 to over 100.

“We’ve moved towards a funding stream that doesn’t fund basic science and translational studies, which we need. With that, we’ve lost the ability to capitalise on these skills in this country.

“These are studies that take a long time and won’t translate into jobs in a year or so. So something like this validates the importance of autophagy studies, and the importance of working on basic and translational science.”

For the past decade, scientists like Hussey have been trying to understand the physiology of a disease and how autophagy plays a role. It’s a “slow and tedious” job but, in future, Hussey knows what the holy grail will be.

“If we get to a stage where we can manipulate autophagy and have it work for us, that would be huge.

“If you look at various disease processes, a lot have links to autophagy, like cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is very prevalent in Ireland, as the Celts carried it.

“The Nobel prize probably validates people’s beliefs that this is a good field to get into. As autophagy is new, each gene needs to be elucidated, there’s an awful lot of work,” he said.

Prof Afshin Samali

Prof Afshin Samali and other researchers at NUI Galway’s apoptosis research centre are interested in finding out how our cells respond to stress, and what tips the balance in deciding if a cell lives or dies in response to such stress.

This research has applications for many major diseases, whereby diseased cells often have defects in their cell death machinery. In recent years, Samali’s group made a landmark discovery linking cell stress, autophagy and cell death.

They found that when such defective cells are under stress, autophagosomes (the cell recycling plant) provides a platform to activate a secondary cell death pathway (via caspase-8).  This was the first time that this unique cell death-inducing complex was discovered, and Samali’s group have called it the ‘Stressosome’.

This research has important implications for cancer. Resistance to chemotherapy is a common problem in the treatment of cancer, and is frequently caused by defects in the standard cell death machinery (mitochondrial death effector proteins).

So, alternate stress-induced cell death pathways, such as the one discovered by Professor Samali’s group, may become of particular relevance for tackling the problem of chemoresistance in cancer cells.

Most recently, Samali and some colleagues contributed to international guidelines on the use and interpretation of tests to monitor autophagy.

Nobel prize: Physics

Physicists David J Thouless, F Duncan M Haldane and J Michael Kosterlitz have been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their efforts in unlocking the secrets of mysterious, exotic matter.

In announcing this year’s laureates for one of the most coveted of Nobel Prize awards, the panel of judges said that the three were awarded it “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.

More specifically, they commended the three researchers’ use of topological concepts in physics – a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change stepwise – to study unusual phases, or states, of matter such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films.

Nobel prize: Quantum computing

Quantum computing. Image: sakkmesterke/Shutterstock

Dr Jiri Vala

Dr Jiri Vala is a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Research Fellow based at Maynooth University. He is generally regarded as Ireland’s resident expert on the subject of topological quantum computing.

Vala joined the Department of Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University as a recipient of the President of Ireland Young Researcher Award 2005, sponsored by SFI. The award was provided to allow him and his team of a postdoctoral fellows (Dr Graham Kells and two PhD students; Ahmet Bolukbasi and Niall Moran) to work on ‘Topological phases and topological quantum computation’.

Computers function by repeatedly manipulating ones and zeros. This has its limits when it comes to the more complex mathematics required in quantum physics – even supercomputers have their limits in this regard.

Because of these limits, more and more computer scientists are studying quantum computing. This is where a quantum bit (qubit) can exist in a state that is simultaneously both one and zero.

So quantum computing is key to the most advanced cryptography in the design of nanotechnology.

A big challenge is that quantum computers have fragile components that are susceptible to electromagnetic interference.

Vala and his team in Maynooth are focused on developing topological quantum computing resources that are ‘fault tolerant’, with data stored in quantum states senstive only to the global structure, or topology, of the systems.

A topological quantum computer is a theoretical quantum computer that employs two-dimensional quasiparticles called anyons, whose world lines cross over one another to form braids in a three-dimensional spacetime.

Vala has predicted that when quantum technologies become more widely available, they will be just as revolutionary on society as when the first PCs came along.

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Nobel prize medal. Image: superjoseph/Shutterstock